Everything I knew about the Alexander Technique came from cultural osmosis and Michael Ashcroft’s tweets. Now I know more: It’s about taking care of your body (posture, harmful patterns, pain and age) by taking care of your thoughts. Mens sana in corpore sano only the other way round. Missy Vineyard has a lot of experience helping people fix their bodies, but also with their mental hangups and how these two influence each other. My biggest takeaway, apart from some very useful mental exercises, was an increased skepticism against what I feel I know about my body.
Part of it has detailed instructions and explanations for exercises: Where is your center of gravity, how does your head misalign when you’re looking at a screen, which muscles and joints move in which directions, and so on. The other part is about what you think and how you think it. I appreciated this attention to detail a lot. There are a lot of anecdotes, too, but they are not any more or less obnoxious than usual in this genre.
Much of the book provides reasons to actually try the exercises listed. Much is just paying very careful attention to your movements: Standing up, sitting down, but placing your hands on different muscles to observe what you actually do. Watching yourself in a mirror, figuring out weird patterns of movement and unnecessary muscle tension. Observe how deciding to do something already contracts muscles, and so on.
A big part of the book deals with the concept of inhibition. It’s unintuitive, but I’ve found it very powerful: While you’re doing something, think verbally and consciously that you are not doing that thing. “I am not standing”, “I am not walking”, “I am not playing the piano”. Trust your mind/body/subconscious/whatever to take care of it, and keep your brain/conscious/whatever from interfering by keeping it distracted.
Inhibition is also useful as a way of dealing with pain or discomfort: “I am not reacting to this itch”, “I am not reacting to my anger”. Your goal is never to get rid of an input (e.g. your anger, your itch), just of your response to it. It’s also useful for any performances (think music, speeches, theatre) or any exercises and sports. Particularly reactive sports (all ball sports) work much better when you trust your body to do the right thing and inhibit. Same for driving a car, riding a bike, and so on.
Feelings are inputs, thoughts are commands/outputs in this model. Putting your attention on your tightening muscles is not the same as thinking that you want to stop tensing your muscles. Feeling will shift your attention downwards and inwards, while conscious thinking allows you to detach and expand your awareness. It’s not intuitive, but powerful. Anything you try to do with this conscious verbal thinking has to be intense (aka carry meaning). You can’t just say “I’m not moving my leg”, you have to focus on imbuing every word in the sentence with meaning (play around to find the best words for you).
The negative phrasing in this model may be unintuitive – much self-help focuses on positive frames, positive statements, finding a yes for every no, etc. Vineyard makes the point that focusing on a negative statement is liberating because all that is required is to stop doing something. There’s nothing that you should do, no effort looming on the horizon. You just have to stop.
The second big part of the book is about spatial awareness. Vineyard encourages you to perform a mental motion that keeps you aware of your surroundings. The shortened formula is “up, forward, wide” (see details in the exercise below), or imagining a sheet of paper morphing into a cube. Expanding your active awareness in these directions, and then beyond yourself and into your surroundings, feels extremely powerful and good, though I could not say for what.
One last thought that I picked up from this book, and that has kept me busy for a while: You have and maintain a model of your body, and you build this model by way of your bodily sensations. The sensations are true, but your interpretation of them is often flawed. This will often lead to vicious circle, because your efforts to correct a problem will not touch the actual problem, and you have no way to see this. As Vineyard puts it: “Both the machine and the hologram needed repair simultaneously.” That’s where mirrors (and teachers) come in and let you correct your assumptions. Now we just need a brain mirror to be able to fix our emotions …
This is the selection of exercises that were useful to me. There were others: Many more movement and inhibition exercises, and some strengthening exercises for neck and back muscles.
Lying down (semisupine)
Lie on your back, on a firm surface. Elbows bent, hands on ribs. Knees bent, feet on the floor. Place some books under your head (do not use a neck pillow – you want to support your head and allow your neck to lengthen naturally). No pressing your lower back down, no holding in your stomach.
Lying down (prone)
Lie facedown on a firm surface, arms placed along the sides of your body, palms up, elbows bent. Shoulders fall forward toward the floor. Head rotates forward, forehead on the ground. Put about three inches of books under the sternum. Do not roll your legs in or out. Relax and open your jaw.
A good practice for inhibition is starting small: First, tell yourself you’re not lifting your arm and don’t lift your arm. Repeat for a while, no matter how silly. Then, tell yourself you’re not lifting your arm and start lifting it. The second your attention moves to your arm (probably after a few cm of movement): stop, focus on your thoughts for a bit, then start again.
Your end goal is to reach a point where you can consciously form an intention to move, but never decide to move. Form the intention, then remove your mind/brain/thoughts from the equation. Make sure that you’re always in the mode of conscious verbal thought, up and forward, instead of collapsing your awareness.
Spatial awareness: 3D
Picture a sheet of paper. Now picture it transforming into a cube.
(Yes, that’s it. It can have a huge impact, particularly if you can do it while reading or while engaging in anything else that causes your awareness to collapse).
Spatial awareness: Up, wide, forward
Focus on the directions “up” (direction of your head), “forward” (direction of your face), “wide” (direction of your ears). Try to sustain this focus during everyday activities – if you lose it, ideally stop, focus, start again. Later add inhibition exercises. If you do it long enough, you won’t need the words anymore.
The counter-movement is implied (you want a sense of stability and tension), but focusing on up/forward/wide is usually sufficient for that. If you have trouble with all of this or feel interested, play with these directions, though. Think “up” for a while, then think “down” and compare what is happening.
Spatial awareness: Body release
Do the previous exercise: Focus on verbal thinking, think up/forward/wide. Then think of your head releasing forward and up from your neck. Think of your back lengthening and widening. Think of your legs releasing forward and away from your torso.
Other useful stuff
- Your head is balanced on your spine, but its center of gravity is slightly in front of the spine (and also in front of the center of gravity of the torso).
- Standing and moving requires dynamic counterbalance, not static balance – only most sitting and lying down is static.
- Muscles fatigue. Take short breaks from sitting/standing. Lie down, prone or semisupine. Six times a day for ten minutes is better than an hour at once.
- “Uncomfortable = bad” is simplistic and long-term harmful. Learn that you can tolerate reasonable levels of discomfort without reacting.
- The words we find for our feelings are often inconsistent. What you call “worried” today may be “tired” tomorrow. It’s easy to mislead yourself.
- Sensations come to our awareness only after an action has happened. So they are never quite up-to-date, and when you react to sensations by way of thought, you are slow. Instead, direct your body with thoughts and words, and let it take care of the rest. Yeah, this requires a ton of trust.
- Touch is powerful and underappreciated. You can communicate (both unintentionally and intentionally) moods and more via touch.
- When doing something, you’re always better at it when you don’t hide yourself. Like, when you read a text out loud, you’re an important part of the reading, and you’ll be more interesting and engaging when you put yourself (and your sense-making, your self) in there. This is vastly better than trying to control what happens, or hiding your part in it.